A few years ago, Steven Schragis was dropping his daughter off for her freshman year of college in upstate New York. During his visit, the school had roughly one dozen professors giving various short talks on their areas of expertise. As he listened to the short lectures, Schragis found himself really enjoying them - and, asking around afterwards, found that many of the other parents there had experienced similar reactions, to the point where they wished they were the ones about to embark on a few years of higher learning.
Increasingly, adults are realizing that learning doesn't have to have an end date - as the reactions of Schragis and his companions indicate. Even those who have already attained college degrees - and sometimes even graduate degrees - have begun to think of learning as a lifelong process.
It was thanks to this reasoning that Schragis decided to found One Day University, which brings some of the academic world's top professors together to throw one day learning experiences for students of all ages. There are 80 to 100 of these every year that are held everywhere Seattle to New York to San Jose. These events skew older: the average age of attendees is 59, with 54% of the attendees being women and 46% men. And don't let the word "university" fool you; One Day U is upfront about focused on lifelong learning rather than amassing credits.
Of course, it's not just the younger set that has a shorter attention span: the adults that attend One Day University want to cut through the fat and get the best of the best. To that end, Schragis and his team select the most popular professors at their schools, then work closely with those professors to develop the most engaging talks.
"We put quite a bit of effort into making sure the classes we choose are the ones that students find the most interesting," says Schragis. These most popular courses wind up having quite disparate topics, from Hamilton vs Jefferson: The Rivalry that Shaped America, to The Science of Sleep, to Why Some People are Resilient (and others are not).
Of course, One Day University is not the only option for people looking to keep their minds sharp as they grow older. Universities around the country, including such prestigious institutions as New York University and Stanford, have long offered classes for those with the resources to pay. On top of that, many community centers and colleges often offer reduced fees and scholarships for seniors who wish to attend.
The Benefits of Lifelong Learning
The number of individuals who have some form of cognitive impairment in the U.S. is equal to roughly twice New York City's population. Luckily, in addition to giving people the opportunity to learn about subjects they find interesting but otherwise wouldn't have had the chance to pursue, continued learning over one's lifetime has been shown to help prevent cognitive decline.
Keith Fargo, the Director of Scientific Programs and Outreach for the Alzheimer's Association, says that "engaging in lifelong learning", along with other lifestyle adjustments (regular exercise, having a healthy diet), "is important in order to maximize the potential to reduce risk of cognitive decline and dementia."
One study on cognition presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference involved over 7,500 subjects followed over the course of 21 years. This study uncovered that individuals with the lowest 20 percent of grades were 21 percent more likely to get dementia. The research found that good grades as a kid, not to mention demanding jobs as adults, offered the greatest protection against dementia. All the evidence seems to suggest that stimulation of the brain on an ongoing basis is critical.
It's not just Alzheimer's that lifelong learning combats; it is cognitive decline in general. A 2017 study published in Age and Ageing found that professionals who retire from jobs that have high amounts of social stimulation could be at risk of "accelerated cognitive decline with advancing age." The logical conclusion is that as professionals retire - or even think about slowing down - programs like One Day University replace some of that social and mental stimulation, while also providing fun in the process.
Finally, taking a course such as the ones offered at One Day University is not an activity restricted to people of a certain age. Anyone can find a topic that's interesting to them, while simultaneously broadening their worldview. And if it also happens to stave off cognitive decline, well, that's just an added bonus.